Back Issues | The Nation

Back Issues

Back Issues

Guided tours through the archive of America’s oldest weekly. Got a question? rkreitner@thenation.com.

Hold It Right There: Teapot Dome Belongs to the People!

The Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming

A postcard, circa 1922, picturing Wyoming's Teapot Rock (Wikimedia Commons, PD-US)

The news that ownership of the Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming recently passed from public to private hands for the first time in American history has been greeted with a collective shrug. That response befits the nation Gore Vidal renamed, late in life, with painful aptness, the United States of Amnesia. Yet one might have hoped that the sale would at least have picked a little at the scar tissue covering what was once, before Watergate, one of the sorest wounds the legitimacy of the US government had ever received. Instead, Politico’s anxiously reassuring headline about the transfer, “Government sells Teapot Dome—on the level, this time,” sums up so much about our relationship, in 2015, with the American past.

Exactly a century ago, in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson withdrew the oil-rich lands around Teapot Rock in central Wyoming and assigned them to serve as reserves for the Navy. After World War I, the Navy transferred them to the Department of the Interior, headed in the administration of Warren Gamaliel Harding by one Albert Fall. In an ominous fit of Rahm-like privatization, Fall leased the lands to oil companies on the cheap, without soliciting competing bids.

So far, so good, at least according to the rules of the wheel-‘em-deal-‘em pre-1933 capitalism to which our own captains of industry are so desperate to return. But where Fall erred was in accepting bribes from the companies amounting to several millions of dollars, adjusted for inflation. It took a few years—and the Pulitzer Prize–winning efforts of unjustly forgotten investigative reporter Paul Y. Anderson, then of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, later the longtime Washington correspondent for The Nation—but eventually Fall was convicted of bribery and became the first (until Nixon’s Attorney-General John Mitchell, the only) former Cabinet-level official to go to prison.

In October 1927, when the Supreme Court declared the lease of Teapot Dome void, as it had been “procured by corruption,” The Nation ran an editorial, “Calling Men By Their Rightful Names,” applauding the Court for acknowledging the crooks for what they were: “faithless Americans who cheated and betrayed their country in order to line their pockets.”

“The deep significance of this goes far beyond the recovery of the oil lands,” the editorial continued. “This is the final triumph of the movement to purge the government” of corruption. “Not only do the mills of the gods continue to grind exceeding fine; the spirit of revolt cannot be downed.”

“The Multimillionaire Goes Free,” read The Nation’s editorial the following spring, when Harry F. Sinclair, one of the oil magnates who had bought off Fall, was acquitted.

From the Pacific to the Atlantic men and women…are declaring that it is settled that there are two kinds of justice—one for the rich, one for the poor. They are right, and their knowledge of this fact will do more harm to American institutions than all the soap-box orators who may be preaching a radical change in our form of government in the streets of our cities. Destroy faith in the equality of all men before the courts, and you go far toward toppling the government.

Back in government hands, the Teapot Dome field sat dormant until the 1970s, when oil production resumed and the Navy transferred title to the Department of Energy. Since 1976, drilling on the land has plugged more than $569 million into government coffers, and for awhile at least, the oil was being sold at suspiciously familiar below-market prices.

Then, late last month, the Energy Department announced that it had sold Teapot Dome for $45.2 million to Stranded Oil Resources, a company that specializes in shooting carbon dioxide to loosen up the last little bits of petroleum left in the ground.

“By targeting historic properties with known characteristics,” Stranded’s CEO said, “we reduce the uncertainty and risk generally associated with oil exploration.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The scandal isn’t what’s illegal, some guy once said; it’s what’s legal. A corollary for the twenty-first century: the real scandal is that what “faithless Americans” used to have to do illegally has been reframed as ho-hum and above-board.

It’s probably too late, but some earnest, reckless public-interest lawyer ought to try to sue to keep Teapot Dome in the public hands. The National Park Service could build a museum about the history of what we’re endlessly assured is only corruption of an otherwise healthy body politic. It could open in 2022, on the centennial of public disclosure of Fall’s deals. Maybe President Hillary Clinton would cut the ribbon.

(As it happens, the Nation editorial of October 1927 applauded the progressives’ determination, a year before the presidential election, “to do their uttermost to prevent the nomination of another Harding ready to put criminals in the Cabinet, or of another Coolidge ever ready servilely to lick the boots of Big Business.”)

The deep significance of this goes beyond the recovery of the oil lands. Where are those soap-box orators?

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner at thenation dot com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: Richard Kreitner on how U.S. torture programs have not yet evolved since the war in the Philippines.

We Used to Convict American Torturers, So Why Not Today?

Macabebe Scouts apply the "water cure," 1902

A 1902 cartoon depicts Macabebe Scouts applying the "water cure" during the Spanish-American War. (Deseret Evening News, CC BY 2.0)

Of the many worthy candidates for the year in which the United States of America conclusively fell from grace, I have always had a fondness for 1899. That was the year war-mad imperialists launched a crusade to take over Spain’s colony in the Philippines. “The development of the islands cannot be successfully done while the Filipinos are there,” argued the San Francisco Argonaut, quoted in The Nation in 1902. “Therefore the more of them killed the better.”

Echoes, of course, of Vietnam—but also, in a different way, of our current age of endless and boundless war. “Whenever a small force of Americans undertakes an expedition,” The Nation observed in 1900, “the woods and hills become alive with enemies.”

The Americans’ response was indiscriminate slaughter. In his 1939 memoir, Fighting Words, The Nation’s former editor and publisher Oswald Garrison Villard—a co-founder of the Anti-Imperialist League—wrote that on April 14, 1902, he “lunched” with President Theodore Roosevelt and told him about some of worst reports of American abuses in the Philippines. “The very next day he issued an order calling on the military for a most rigorous investigation,” Villard recalled. “Some of the phrases in that order had a remarkably familiar sound, as I had used them in my talk with him.”

But Roosevelt’s secretary of state, Elihu Root, responded with a report asserting that US troops’ behavior was “worthy only of praise, and reflecting credit on the American people.”

Still, as the historian Paul Kramer wrote in The New Yorker in 2008, “further revelations from the islands” forced a broader debate on the issue of torture: a Senate committee convened to investigate the issue, and American troops were repeatedly brought before courts-martial to answer for charges of torturing and wantonly killing Filipinos en masse.

Even those processes were undermined: the Senate committee was led by the jingoist Henry Cabot Lodge, who suppressed the records of the courts-martial, which generally handed down sentences of absurd leniency, given the crimes, when the accused were convicted at all.

In March of 1903 The Nation ran an editorial note on its first page calling for the release of records from the trials of soldiers for committing “barbarous practices.” It castigated the War Department for suppressing the information:

The course of the Department touching this particular branch of its business has been marked by concealment and duplicity. There is not a more shameful page in our history. Nothing so much needs turning inside out as the court-martial records, unless it be an exposure of the cases of barbarity that were never tried. Of the latter, nothing will be known positively until the last trump sounds.

The release of the Senate’s torture report in December was treated as the sounding of the last trumpet in our more recent dalliance with the water cure and other “barbarous practices” borrowed from the past. But so far from the comparatively elevated standards of 1903 are we today that the only American prosecuted in relation to the US torture program has been the whistleblower, John Kiriakou, who told us about it.

“Where Americans actively defend torture, or sanction it through their silence,” Paul Kramer wrote in January, “it is their willingness to assimilate the pain of others into their senses of safety, prosperity and power that stretches the darkest thread between past and present.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The damage of torture is contagious. In the same March 1903 issue, The Nation reported that Roosevelt was standing by his pledge to make appointments to federal offices without regard for race. Applauding Roosevelt’s stance in face of opposition even from his own party, The Nation mocked the president’s naïve assumption that the Party of Lincoln ought to be as committed to racial equality in 1903 as in the days of Emancipation and Reconstruction. The takeover of the Republican Party by warmongers, The Nation argued, bore unforeseen consequences. “Our treatment of an inferior race across the sea has encouraged certain men to believe that an inferior race may be oppressed in our own land,” the editors noted. “What the astonished President sees is only our injustice abroad returning to plague us at home.”

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner at thenation dot com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.


Read Next: Richard Kreitner on John Keats’s legacy.

Today is FDR’s Birthday: Before the 1932 Election, ‘The Nation’ Was Not Impressed

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932

Franklin D. Roosevelt in Topeka, Kansas, September 1932

In the run-up to the 1932 presidential election, The Nation ran a series of profiles of the candidates called “Presidential Possibilities.” The ninth and final installment—oddly mislabeled the eighth—was of the sitting governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born on this date in 1882.

Henry Pringle, journalist and biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, wrote that FDR’s last name itself was “worth a vast number of votes.” Like the name Clinton today, perhaps? “We talk a good deal about democracy,” Pringle continued, “but we like Presidential candidates with a background, at least, of aristocracy.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Pringle’s conclusions about the prospects for liberal revival under a Roosevelt presidency are amusing to read. Of particular interest today is Pringle’s suggestion that “a new deal is needed in the world,” but that Roosevelt was not likely to introduce it:

The truth is that Franklin Roosevelt hauls down banners under which he has marched in the past and unfurls no new ones to the skies…His candidacy for the Democratic nomination has strength because he is all things to many sections of the nation. In the East he is wet and not radical. In the West he is progressive. In the South he is not very wet, after all, and is—thank God—a Protestant. These are priceless assets to a candidate for a nomination. They are, perhaps, exactly the reverse if Franklin Roosevelt is to be judged on the basis of his worth as a possible President of the United States. If it is true that a new deal is needed in the world, there is small hope for better things in his candidacy. If it is true that foreign debts must be adjusted downward and reparations forgotten, there is nothing in Roosevelt’s philosophy, as far as we know, which gives promise of a better day. He calls for palliatives in world affairs, not cures. His domestic program is hardly more stimulating. This may be the reason why, although Roosevelt wins respect for his ability, his candidacy arouses so little real enthusiasm. I see no evidence whatever that people are turning to him as a leader. They may vote for him—I think they will—because they are sick and tired of Hoover and weary of the depression.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner at thenation dot com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: Richard Kreitner and The Almanac on the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

Sheldon Silver’s Arrest Brings Us Back to New York’s ‘Bad Old Days’—the 1860s

History Repeats Itself. The Robber Barons of the Middle Ages and Today.

A cartoon that appeared in the American weekly Puck in 1889.

The “bad old days” are the bogeyman of New York politics. By servicing anyone other than oligarchs, this typically race-inflected story goes, Mayor Bill de Blasio risks the return of crime, grime and graffiti.

But the indictment of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver should make us think of other “bad old days” from the state’s past—the first Gilded Age—when Tammany Hall and its accomplices, the robber barrons (a term coined in the 1930s by Nationite Matthew Josephson), ruled the roost.

An editorial, “Legislative Corruption,” in the Nation of April 18, 1867, lamented that while previous sessions of the legislature “were scandalous to a degree that could hardly be surpassed…all accounts agree in representing that bribery is more flagrant at this session than ever before.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The editors blamed “those great corporations” that “own the legislatures of their respective states, and can pass or reject bills at their pleasure.” Most interestingly, the editorial explores the entanglement of political and ethical compromise:

A member of the Legislature has almost always from one to a dozen pet measures upon the success of which his political future may depend. He soon finds that he can do nothing with these, however just they may be, without pledging his support to other schemes which may not commend themselves to his judgment. Thus he is driven to take the first step in trading his vote, and soon finds himself ensnared into the support of bills which he knows to be opposed to the public good. Having gone so far, it is plausibly urged upon him that, since he must sacrifice the public interest, he might as well gain some little private advantage. And having once voted for a bill because of a “friend” in it, or in the expectation of a share in its profits, it is easy to take the next step and accept a direct bribe. In this way many respectable men who commence public life with a horror of bribery gradually sink into habits of corruption.

In that Gilded Age as in this, public corruption was a direct consequence of the explosion of private wealth and inequality. “The rapid growth of this evil does not necessarily prove that we are inherently worse than our ancestors,” The Nation argued. “Fifty years ago there were few men or corporations of great wealth in America…Wealth has rapidly increased among us. Legislatures have the power of granting privileges immensely valuable, and great corporations, or men who, like [Cornelius] Vanderbilt or [George] Law, are corporations in themselves, are eager to purchase such privileges.”

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: Richard Kreitner on how a long-lost constitutional clause could save the right to vote.

‘America Is Sinking Fast’: John Leonard and Todd Gitlin on Robert Stone

Robert Stone

Robert Stone in 2013 (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The acclaimed novelist Robert Stone died this week at 77 years old. One of his greatest critical champions was the late John Leonard, onetime literary editor of The Nation, whose 1992 review of Outerbridge Reach began as follows:

Call him Ishmael. Robert Stone returns from Melville and the raptures of the deep to tell us that God and history are both dead, America is sinking fast and manhood itself may be terminally diseased. America and manhood have always been his texts, through which looks, with a burning eye, for watermarks of larger purpose, coded meanings. Stone might leave the country (for Vietnam, for Central America, even Hollywood or Antarctica), but it’s America confounded that he finds wherever he goes. And although there are plenty of women in his novels, they are doped to the gills, or tortured to martyrdom, or hang themselves and drown, while a man stands around construing his failure to heroize. It’s as if this erstwhile Merry Prankster book by book were working his way backward, out of Mailer and Hemingway, until, of course, he arrives at Melville’s Isolato. Like Ahab, Stone hounds God—and discovers His absence.

Later in the review, Leonard wrote that “the last couple of hundred pages of Outerbridge Reach” were “as dazzling as anything in American literature.”

John Leonard’s review can be read in full here.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Stone’s next novel after Outerbridge Reach, Damascus Gate, was reviewed in the Nation of May 11, 1998, by Todd Gitlin, whose review began:

It would be much too simple to say that a lot of Robert Stone’s characters are stoned. Drugs are only their turnstiles. They get stoned, also, on going places they don’t belong but can’t stay away form. In six novels now, one of the major oeuvres in American letters of the past three decades, Stone is obsessed with the spiritual desperadoes, the overreachers, the uneasy riders, those who are tempted to go too far out—to madness, riches, prizes, revolution, whatever they find out too late they can’t get. These zealots are seekers at the end of their dope, stoned on freedom, jumping at chances to squander everything dear in exchange for something ineffable, searching for some transcendence that will leave unbelievers sprawling in the dust. The resulting tragedies take place in a Stone Country consisting exclusively of edges—New Orleans, Vietnam, California, Central America, Mexico’s West Coast, the open Atlantic. All but the last (from Outerbridge Reach) are furiously hot places, Boschian infernos where only outsiders dwell, and then only on the sufferance of the demons who diddle and drive them. The guilty and the innocent are lashed together, having been parachuted into a moral wilderness, left to deal obscurely in blasted landscapes under skies so big and empty they drive the weak to kill. It is as if Graham Greene were on street drugs, graced with a lyrical gift and a genius for dry anticlimax all at once. Stone is an ecstatic of disillusion.

Gitlin’s review of Damascus Gate can be read in full here.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.


Read Next: Richard Kreitner on the first victory of the Arab Spring

150 Years of ‘The Nation’ in the World

The first of many events marking The Nation’s 150th anniversary in 2015 occurred last Friday, at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in midtown Manhattan. At a panel moderated by our editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, four historians discussed The Nation’s coverage of their respective areas of expertise. In his preliminary remarks, longtime Nation Deadline Poet Calvin Trillin recalled fond moments aboard the magazine’s annual cruise (“lefties at sea,” as he dubbed it) and the intense negotiations in which he persuaded former Nation editor Victor Navasky to raise his pay per poem from something in “the high two figures” to a clean $100, making him, if reports were true, the highest-paid poet in America when measured by dollars per line.

In her introductory remarks, vanden Heuvel toasted the magazine’s traditions of “truth-telling, rooting out corruption and, yes, publishing heretical, often unpopular, ideas, challenging the limits of the debate.”

The first historian to speak was Sara Alpern, author of Freda Kirchwey: A Woman of the Nation, which no reader interested in the history of this magazine can afford to go without. Alpern recounted the story of Kirchwey’s career at the magazine and the intensity of her engagment with international affaris in its pages and beyond, not least in battles over the Spanish Civil War, American entry to World War II and the establishment of the state of Israel.

Following Alpern was the celebrated NYU historian Greg Grandin, author of the critically acclaimed The Empire of Necessity, published last year. Grandin, whose blog post at TheNation.com on the dissolution of The New Republic was widely read and cited last month, discussed the differences between The Nation’s coverage of political turmoil in Latin America in the last century and The New Republic’s. He particularly focused on the work of Ernest Gruening, Nation managing editor in the 1920s and later one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution escalating the Vietnam War, and the great William Appleman Williams, about whom Grandin wrote a brilliant, must-read tribute in our pages a few years ago.

Next up was the University of Michigan historian of the Middle East and South Asia, Juan Cole, whose delivered a characteristically detailed examination of The Nation’s coverage of Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in the 1950s. Generally, Cole argued, The Nation’s coverage of the countries holds up well more than fifty years later, but he also noted the not-infrequent instances of Orientalism and political bias in what we published at the time.

Closing the session with a timely dose of oomph was Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian history at NYU, who looked back over his more than three decades of questioning conventional wisdom about US-Russian relations in the pages of The Nation. Cohen surveyed with disapproval the lamentable state of press coverage on the issue in the mainstream media and called out some of the most prominent American journalistic institutions for their lapdog coverage of our government’s sins of omission and commission in Eastern Europe and across the world.

The Nation will be hosting many more events, in New York and all across the country, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Western Hemisphere’s oldest weekly magazine. Stay tuned to our events page for details. Many thanks to the indispensable History News Network for the above videos and for their coverage of the entire conference.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Détente With Cuba: Just About Freaking Time

Wax sculptures of Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy at Madame Tussaud's in London. (Wikimedia Commons)

Much is legitimately contested in this crazy, crazy world, but there is only one honest response to the news that the Obama administration will open talks with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations, suspended since early 1961: it is just about freaking time.

Immediately after the Revolution of January 1, 1959—which overthrow the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista—The Nation warned of the deleterious consequences for Cuba and for the US should the government of the latter deal with the former only on the basis of antagonism and hostility. The great foreign correspondent Carleton Beals—who made international headlines in the late 1920s after traveling into the jungles of Nicaragua to interview the elusive guerrilla leader Augusto César Sandino—wrote in “Revolution Without Generals,” in the Nation of January 17, 1959: “Much of the course of events in the near future will depend upon the official American attitude toward Castro. Will our government be as lavishly helpful with him as it was with Batista?”

It wasn’t to be. By the summer of 1960, Beals was writing in a special “Report from Havana”:

We have missed the boat badly. If the Eisenhower Government succeeds in overthrowing Castro (it would cost much bloodshed), in destroying the agrarian reform and the free spirit of the Cuban people and in imposing another puppet dictator labeled as “democratic,” the action will win no prestige for the United States. If Castro survives our dollar diplomacy and our fear diplomacy, our loss in prestige will be equally great.

By that point, Eisenhower had already directed the CIA to come up with plans for an invasion of Cuba, which were eventually passed off—with disastrous consequences, predicted by Beals—to his successor, John F. Kennedy. Just after the election that November, Beals wrote in “Cuba’s Invasion Jitters” (November 12, 1960) that Cubans were extremely nervous at the prospect that the US would launch an invasion to overthrow Castro, probably using a false-flag attack on the naval base at Guantanamo as a “pretext.” Though that’s not how things eventually played out—the United States never even bothered to cite a proximate cause for the Bay of Pigs invasion—Beals’s warnings now read as disturbingly, tragically prophetic:

Even if an attack occurred, the Cubans may be wrong in believing that immediate armed intervention would follow. A state of quasi-belligerency between the two countries would permit the Untied States to blockade the island and starve the Cuban people into submission. There are indications that a clique in Washington, chiefly military, wishes to set up such a blockade and seize all shipments from iron curtain countries. Such a course could bring about armed clashes with the Soviets, who might attempt to protect their shipping with warships and submarines.

Besides threatening world conflict, our Cuban policy has broken the New World front. Each hour that our punitive blows hit Cuba, we lose support from the people of Latin America…. If we really believe in land reform for Latin America, and intend to help pick up the tab for it, then why not pick up the tab for Cuba and guarantee her agrarian bonds? This gesture would cost us little more than what we should have paid for the use of the Guantanamo Naval Base all these six decades. It would certainly be cheaper and more sensible than bringing a possible world war close to our shores, breaking the hearts of the Cuban people, and perhaps fomenting a dozen Cuban revolutions elsewhere in Latin America. The whole deal would cost us less than the development of one of our new-fangled moon-rockets.

But it was in the following week’s issue that The Nation really staked its claim to fame on the story of Cuban-American relations. In an editorial titled “Are We Training Cuban Guerillas?”—ironically, we can see now, published the page after a lead editorial on “Mr. Kennedy’s Opportunity”—The Nation cited intelligence gleaned from Dr. Ronald Hilton of Stanford University, who on a trip to Guatemala learned that the US was training counter-revolutionary Cuban guerillas in a secret base in that country:

If Washington is ignorant of the existence of the base, or, knowing that it exists, is nevertheless innocent of any involvement in it, then surely the appropriate authorities will want to scotch all invidious rumors and issue a full statement of the real facts. On the other hand, if the reports heard by Dr. Hilton are true, then public pressure should be brought to bear upon the Administration to abandon this dangerous and hair-brained project.

Again, it was not to be. The Nation’s warning was ignored, and a more deeply reported account of the the invasion preparations, to be published in The New Republic, was suppressed at the request of that magazine’s Reader-in-Chief. The Nation tried again in January with an editorial titled “Nothing to Fear?”

The notion that this country is planning an actual armed invasion of Cuba is, by common assumption, “preposterous.” Why, then, does Castro insist that an invasion is imminent? Why does he keep the Cubans on a round-the-clock alert?… Why, given all these signs and omens, is Castro so nervous? Doesn’t this silly man know that the sugar-cane harvest needs attention? Aren’t there some psychiatrists in Havana who might calm his volatile militia men and militia ladies? Who are they afraid of, “spooks” or what?

When the invasion finally materialized in April of 1961, it wasn’t, of course, only The Nation who recognzied it for the disaster it was—not just a tactical or even a strategic disaster, but a disaster, as Beals had written the previous summer, for what remained of American prestige. Most of the media concentrated on Kennedy’s unwillingness to militarily intervene to support the invasion, but even before that decision had been made, editor Carey McWilliams asked Ronald Hilton, who had initially provided the information about the invasion preparations the previous fall, to reflect on the implications of the conspiracy itself (“The Cuba Trap,” April 29, 1961):

A few general considerations may be derived.… The first is that the United States will almost certainly emerge from the current situation with a tarnished reputation. Our equivocations have unquestionably reduced our prestige throughout the world. For this we must thank the power elite in New York and Washington which really runs the affairs of this country.

That power elite is responsible for the embargo on Cuba, in effect to various degrees since October of 1960. The Nation has repeatedly called for its end—most recently this past October, in a feature article by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh. This magazine’s archives are endlessly fascinating, for their historical interest, and for their enabling of “we-told-you-so” posts like this one. But they have another purpose as well. When the time comes to reconsider the position of the power elite in this country, it might be wise to look back at an article that ran in the Nation of November 30, 1957. It was titled “What Cuba’s Rebels Want,” and the author was Fidel Castro:

The future of the country and the solution of its problems cannot continue to depend on the selfish desires of a dozen financiers, on the cold profit-and-loss calculations of a few magnates in air-conditioned offices. The country cannot continue to beg, on bended knee, for miracles from a few “golden calves.” Cuba’s problems will only be solved if we Cubans dedicate ourselves to fight for their solution with the same energy, integrity and patriotism our liberators invested in the country’s foundation. They will not be solved by politicians who jabber unceasingly of “absolute freedom of enterprise,” the sacred “law of supply and demand” and “guarantees of investment capital”….

We have sufficient stones and more than enough hands to create a decent residence for every family in Cuba. But if we continue to wait for miracles from the golden calves, a thousand years will pass and nothing will change.

A lot of progress has not happened in Cuba since Castro wrote those words. A lot of progress has not happened in the United States, too. But for the first time in over a half-century, tomorrow really is a new day.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Lynching Is Torture and Torture Is Lynching

American flag illustration

As the first national anti-lynching conference met in New York City in May of 1919, The Nation described that particular brutality as the American iteration of “the habit of torture,” which had somehow survived beyond “the primitive years of mankind.”

“As a rule,” the historian Edward Raymond Turner wrote, recounting several recent lynchings, “the story of these things is hushed up. If the disgrace is felt at all, it is stifled, and the infamy is soon forgotten. Occasionally this is not possible, and then the event may be taken…to point a moral and bring repentance and atonement to our civilization.”

Whatever the motive of torture, “nothing can explain it away, as nothing can remove the shame and disgrace of it,” Turner concluded.

Woe to those who permit it in their midst! Not only shall their fair name be gone, but they themselves are in danger; they must expect to see this hideous thing, lurking darkly in society, plague them in the administration of their prisons and asylums, show itself in the ordinary life of the base and uncouth whenever they get power, and sometimes, when the madness of men becomes the lust and unreason of the mob, burst forth with all the frightfulness it had long ago in ages of the past.

Surely, it would shock and awe the wise and prophetic Edward Raymond Turner, risen from history, to discover that ostensibly respected—if not quite self-respecting—Americans in 2014 are still defending the morality of torture. And yet here we are. “I’d do it again in a minute,” saith the Dark Lord of the Sith himself.

But almost as unseemly is the media’s portrayal of Dick Cheney as outside the mainstream of American political opinion: that he is, but it wasn’t always so. As Digby writes at Salon, “It must be acknowledged that members of the media were among the first to call for torture…. Even though the excuses these days are all about how the chaos of the early days and the pain of the attacks led the government to ‘make mistakes,’ that’s really no excuse.”

It never was one. From the very beginning, immediately after September 11, The Nation warned of the inalterable consequences of a retreat from the very ideals of “civilization” in whose name the “war on terror” itself was ostensibly being waged. Responding to the infamous Jonathan Alter column in Newsweek (November 5, 2001), titled “Time to Think About Torture,” The Nation’s Alexander Cockburn seethed:

What’s striking about Alter’s commentary and others in the same idiom is the abstraction from reality, as if torture is so indisputably a dirty business that all painful data had best be avoided. One would have thought it hard to be frivolous about the subject of torture, but Alter managed it.

“Start torturing,” Cockburn wrote, “and it’s easy to get carried away. Torture destroys the tortured and corrupts the society that sanctions it.”

It was the same argument that had been offered in The Nation by Edward Raymond Turner, who might have been forgiven for resting easily in his grave under the assumption it would not need to be made, at the opening of the following century, yet again.

* * *

The Nation of March 31, 2003, would have reached readers during the first week of the American invasion of Iraq, but the cover story wasn’t about that war. Rather, “In Torture We Trust,” by Eyal Press, considered “the absence of debate” over the use of torture against captured insurgents in the ongoing Afghan war. Press noted that absence “may simply reflect a preoccupation with Iraq, but it may also signal that in these jittery times, many people see torture as justified.” Among those in the media whom he then quoted was Judge Richard Posner, arguing in The New Republic—remember that rag?—that “if the stakes are high enough, torture is permissible. No one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility.” In their recent sally over at Al Jazeera America, Alex Gourevitch and Corey Robin pinpoint this tone of swaggering bellicosity as one of the cardinal sins of the publication: “Almost as if the very thought of peace, or just caution, was a vice. With each engagement, it was the American soul, not other people’s bodies, that was at stake.” The old New Republic has been raked over the coals for its racism and its gutless imperialism, but its role as early advocate for the use of torture ought not to be missed.

* * *

It will surprise nobody that the deepest, most poignant, most haunting writing about torture to appear in the pages of The Nation—since Edward Raymond Turner, of course—was produced from the now thunderously silent pen of the late Jonathan Schell. In “Torture and Truth” (June 15, 2009), Schell took aim at President Obama’s expressed desire to focus on “getting things right in the future, as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.” Setting to one side the harm to the prisoner, the utter immorality of the practice and its counter-productivity, Schell wrote:

The wound goes deeper. Even as the torturer shatters the world of his victim, he assaults the foundation of his own world, although he does not know it. Indeed, his blindness is a consequence of the torture, even a condition for it. The torturer and his victim are close to each other. There is physical contact. Yet in every other respect they are as distant as it is possible for one person to be from another. In the moral and affective vacuum that has been generated, sympathy, empathy, pity understanding—every form of fellow-feeling—have been reduced to absolute zero…The power of the state that tortures may be increasingly fictional, but the degradation of its civilization is real.

Those symptoms are brought on, of course, not just by the torture but by society’s reaction to it. The interrogator faces his choice when the order to torture comes down from on high. The people face their choice when reports of what he did are made public, as is happening. If the people choose denial, the pathology of torture tends to reproduce itself in the society at large. The result is a kind of cognitive dislocation, which can be more or less severe. Fundamental human capacities begin to atrophy or are impaired. Certainly, abuse of human beings and abuse of words go hand in hand. The words that name the deed fog over, or are driven from the language. Refusal to face the fact of torture has cost us the very word “torture,” now widely referred to, as if in obedience to some general edict, as “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “harsh methods.” Torture’s writ thus runs in the editorial rooms of newspapers.

Thus Dick Cheney’s recent, um, tortuous efforts to coherently define torture and explain why what the United States did to its prisoners was not described by it. But beyond psychology and linguistics, Schell indicated, the scars of torture ran even deeper than even most critics of the practice have ever been willing to admit:

At an even deeper level, the bonds that connect the very tenses of human life—past, present and future—may start to come unglued. It is in this context that our new president’s determination to get things right in the future by ignoring what went wrong in the past is troubling. Here, the past per se is at risk of being demeaned by a sort of guilt by association with torture. The other two tenses, though seemingly preferred, do not escape unharmed. The danger is most obvious in the legal system, where it is precisely the past—the precedent of law plus the factual record of the case—that determines the future to be taken. Someone brought into court for dealing drugs is not invited to say to the judge, “Let’s not look at the past; let’s concentrate on getting the future right.” But more than the legal system is at stake. For whatever else civilization may be, it is surely intercourse between past, present and future. Without the past to guide it, judgment about the future is reduced to clueless conjecture, and without informed judgment about the future, we wander lost in the present.

Better to look the torture in the face and having looked, to remember, and having remembered, to respond, and having responded, to call those responsible to account so that we never do this again.

The purpose of the anti-lynching conference in the spring of 1919 was to encourage Congress to pass legislation making lynching a felony, prosecutable by the federal government. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, supported even by Warren Gamaliel Harding, would have also made it a crime for local officials not to protect individuals in their jurisdiction or not to prosecute lynchings once they had occurred. In 2005, the House of Representatives formally apologized for never having passed anti-lynching legislation “when action was most needed.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Action is needed now. Lynching is torture, and torture is lynching. Officials who authorized torture—who sent the United States back to “the primitive years of mankind”—must be prosecuted. Cops who kill young black men today at a faster rate than they were lynched during Jim Crow must be prosecuted. “The haunting symmetry of a death every three or four days links us to an uglier time that many would prefer not to think about,” Isabel Wilkerson wrote in The Guardian back in August, “but which reminds us that the devaluation of black life in America is as old as the nation itself and has yet to be confronted.” Noah Berlatsky, in his Pacific Standard review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, writes: “American decency has always been more a theory than a practice and America’s most important value—the value that turned this country from a marginal economic unknown to a world-straddling imperial power—was torture.” These things must not be hushed up. Lynching is torture, and torture is lynching. Woe to those who permit either in their midst!

* * *

The Nation's December 26, 2005, issue was entirely devoted to what the cover called "The Torture Complex."

"Conspiracy to Torture," Editorial

"'Never Before!' Our Amnesiac Torture Debate," by Naomi Klein

"The Torture Administration," by Anthony Lewis

"Brass Tacks," by Tara McKelvey

"Seeds of Abu Ghraib," by Sasha Abramsky

"Disco Inferno," by Mustafa Bayoumi

"Rogue Scholars," by Tara McKelvey

"Pop Torture," by Richard Kim

"Secrets and Lies," by Karen Greenberg

"An Army of Lawyers," by Lisa Hajjar

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: “They Said ‘No’ to Torture: The Real Heroes of the Bush Years

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rutherford B. Hayes (but Forgot To Ask)

Rutherford B. Hayes

(Library of Congress)

We here at Back Issues nearly regurgitated our coffee last Saturday morning at the inflammatory news, buried deep inside The New York Times, that only a handful of Americans could name which president, John Tyler or Rutherford B. Hayes, served in office before the eradication of slavery. The amnesia was broader than that: while many could identify those leaders whose visages grace the coin of the realm, the Times reported that Tyler’s reign (1841–45) falls within an era in which popular knowledge of presidents has now “plunged to near zero,” while Hayes’s (1877–81) wallows in “another run of obscurity.”

It is not often that we are aggravated by an unfortunate state of affairs reported in the news that we can directly and individually do something to improve. Everyone can make a difference, and so on, but that tends to require collective action, various layers of mediation, time. So it was exhilarating to find the perturbations of the weekend replaced, come Monday, by a profound sense of empowerment and responsibility. With access to The Nation’s online digital archives—available for free to all subscribers—we could go back into the historical record and recover an immediate sense of what it was like to read about the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes in real time. (Alas, John Tyler, who died in 1862, three years before The Nation was founded, is beyond our ken.) Who was Rutherford B. Hayes? What was going on during his presidency? What, if anything, is worth remembering from that time?

Summarizing the findings, first published in the journal Science, the Times’s Benedict Carey, wrote, “The less a president is ‘used’—seen, heard about, written about, referred to—the less accessible to memory the name becomes.” Join us for a plunge into The Nation’s archives to see how Rutherford B. Hayes might be used.

Hayes, it turns out, is very useful indeed: in a certain sense, Americans today are a lot more familiar with his presidency than they think they are.

* * *

Hayes, a Civil War veteran, was a second-term governor of Ohio when he was nominated for president on the seventh ballot at the Republican Party’s national convention, held in Cincinnati, Hayes’s hometown, in the summer of 1876. The Nation, traditionally Republican but highly disapproving of Ulysses S. Grant’s egregiously corrupt administration, had one over-arching concern in national politics at the time: civil-service reform. E.L. Godkin, the magazine’s editor, thought that a professionalized, nonpolitical administration of the growing federal bureaucracy was a prerequisite for modern democracy and a free and healthy exchange of goods. The Nation worried that Hayes had not yet had to answer to this crucial test.

In a July 20, 1876, editorial, “Things for Mr. Hayes’s Consideration,” The Nation described the candidate as “a man by no means conspicuous in public affairs.” Partisans of civil-service reform, the editorial said, “are willing to support Mr. Hayes as the best man for the place, but, while supporting him, they are not going to shut their eyes to the obvious difficulties and danger of his candidateship, or to fail to keep him in mind of them.” They would keep the pressure on Hayes, should he be elected president, while not allowing their wishes to get their best of their expectations. “His courage and honesty must not be subjected to severer tests when he enters the White House than are absolutely necessary,” the editorial continued, “nor must the public be induced to expect too much from any one man.” The Nation noted that “the corrupt oligarchy who have had charge of the party under General Grant think they have satisfied the public’s demands by nominating Mr. Hayes…. If the Republican candidate is to be elected, he must in some way escape from even the appearance of alliance with ‘the machine.’”

* * *

In its article, the Times framed our lack of cultural knowledge about Rutherford B. Hayes as some kind of forgetting, but the fact is that few of us ever had any such knowledge to lose. All any of us likely ever knew is that Hayes was involved in the disputed presidential election of 1876 (forerunner to the disputed election of 2000), which had something to do with the end of Reconstruction.

The results in three states were in doubt, with partisans of both the Republican Hayes and the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden of New York, blatantly committing electoral fraud—this was a time when such a thing actually existed—and accusing the other side of the same. The uncertainty stretched deep into the winter. In a December 14, 1876, editorial, “The Political Situation,” The Nation sounded exasperated:

What the public is now most interested in is the election of somebody in a manner that will command general confidence. A technical victory would therefore do the Democrats no good…. No man can afford to take the Presidency on any quirk or quibble, or in virtue of any merely technical rule.

Neither Hayes nor, almost 125 years later, George W. Bush took the hint, however, and in January of 1877 a bipartisan commission of fifteen eminences grises, including five Supreme Court justices, was formed to settle the dispute. By a party-line vote of eight to seven, the committee threw the election to Hayes, thus, in The Nation’s eyes, perhaps sullying the respectability of the Court for a long time to come. In an editorial titled “The Provision for Future Presidential Disputes,” The Nation wrote:

Now that the Presidential controversy is over, it is none too soon to think of the means to be adopted to prevent any recurrence of the great danger through which we have just passed. The crisis has brought home to us in a most impressive way the fact that the Presidency has become so huge an affair that our own judicial resources will not enable us to dispute over it without great peril. It is, in other words, so great a prize that it would be almost impossible for us, probably before very long would become wholly impossible, to erect judging machinery strong and steadfast enough to try the title to it.... The settlement has been made with some damage to the Supreme Court—not grave damage, perhaps, but grave enough to make it clear that we could not safely resort to it again in a like case.

One possible reform, the magazine argued, would be to get rid of the Electoral College entirely. Its electors “serve no useful purpose, and they furnish, as we have recently seen, an occasion of much sin and sorrow.”

The Democrats refused to accept the electoral commission’s findings until Hayes agreed to end the federal military occupation of the South, which had helped prop up Reconstruction.

The Nation, to its shame, had by this point cast off its founding radicalism, and was greatly in favor of ending Reconstruction, which it thought had only led to corrupt governments in the South. In our April 5, 1877, issue, an editorial heralded “the dissolution of the last sham government at the South.” Then, alas, this:

We believe the proposition to be almost self-evident, indeed, that hereafter there is to be no South; none, that is, in a distinctively political sense. The negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him. He will undoubtedly play a part, perhaps an important one, in the development of the national civilization. The philanthropist will have still a great deal to do both with him and for him, and the sociological student will find him, curiously placed as he is in contact and competition with other races, an unfailing source of interest; but as a “ward” of the nation he can no longer be singled out for especial guardianship or peculiar treatment in preference to Irish laborers or Swedish immigrants.

* * *

By the fall of 1877, The Nation was beginning to serious doubt whether Hayes had enough spine to finish the job of civil-service reform. Earlier in the year Hayes had issued a vague executive order prohibiting government employees from taking part in political campaigns or conventions; it stirred up severe agitation in Congress and in the civil service itself. The Nation, in a November 1 editorial, cheered the president on and urged him to go even further still. Surveying the opponents of reform, the editors noted, “If the civil service is not to be reformed until they and such as they agree to it, and decide in what manner it shall be done, we shall certainly never see it reformed.” The Nation appreciated the president’s executive order, but worried about his ability to see it through to execution:

It is, of course, for the President to judge what are the practical difficulties in the way of executing the order, and to judge of his own ability to overcome them. There is one thing we can tell him, however, which is, that if his heart fails him before any difficulties which are as yet apparent, he is not the man for the place he fills or the times he lives in.

The most interesting appraisal of Hayes offered by The Nation during his presidency came in the August 15, 1878, issue. It could, with certain tweaks, be written today:

Let us observe…that thousands of those who supported Mr. Hayes most ardently, and most confidently promised “thorough, radical, and complete civil-service reform” in his name, have not only got over the shock of seeing the civil service used immediately on his accession to power to reward the set of bad characters at the South who were engaged in the electoral count, but point triumphantly to the fact that no participation in their frauds has been brought home to the President, as if this of itself proved the success of the Administration. Nor is this the only curious illustration of the readiness of public opinion, if not constantly restrained and enlightened, to accommodate itself to circumstances however mischievous and unwholesome. It is only two years since General Grant left the Presidency, after having given the country at least four years of unparalleled corruption and disregard of law. His faults as a civil ruler were so glaring that he had in 1876 neither a defender nor an apologist who dared to open his mouth. But at this moment “the guilty men” who figured most prominently in his regime have emerged from their hiding places….

All this is the not unnatural result of the extravagant, and indeed absurd, expectations about Mr. Hayes raised by his friends in 1876. The reaction of the disappointment is like the buoyancy of the hopefulness—a little grotesque in its manifestations. But it is more than ever necessary that the sober-minded and rational, by whose labors the Government is to be reformed—if reform be possible—should now neither give way to disappointment nor relax their exertions for a better result next time. Something has been gained by Mr. Hayes’s Administration, and in the two remaining years of it we have no doubt its influence will furnish support to those who seek to prevent our being presented with a choice of evils in 1880. It will be a great misfortune (in the present state of the country an incalculable one) if in the next Presidential canvass prominent reformers have no better work to do than running about showing what a rascal the other candidate is.

* * *

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

In July of 1880, The Nation published an editorial on “General Garfield and the Civil Service,” which expressed the hope that the Republican nominee for the presidency—Hayes had, during his first campaign, pledged to serve only one term—would act more aggressively than the sitting president had. Hayes’s meekness, the editors complained, was inexplicable: “Nobody is competent to explain it but himself, and no explanation of it is likely to come from him,”

Perhaps not publicly, at least. Hayes’s diary entry of July 11, 1880, began: “In the Nation of the 8th there are criticisms of my course on the reform of the civil service. Agreeing generally with the Nation on this subject, I would like to make it clear to all such friends of the reform, that public opinion and Congress must be right on the question before we can have a thorough and complete reform.” Hayes went on to “frankly admit my own shortcomings,” adding parenthetically, “albeit they are not what the Nation supposes.”

* * *

The Nation of March 3, 1881—the day before Hayes’s successor, James Garfield, was inaugurated—included an editorial titled “Mr. Hayes’s Administration,” which began: “By the time this reaches our readers Mr. Hayes will have retired to private life, after an Administration in some ways the most remarkable and trying in American history, because he is the only President who has held office under a disputed title.” Tragically, the editors reported, Hayes had not followed through on his promises of civil-service reform. “In fact,” the editorial lamented, “the battle was lost before a shot had been fired.” Hayes had done some good, The Nation admitted, adding that “it is one of the misfortunes of a President’s position, as it is of a clergyman’s, that when he sets up as a reformer he cannot afford a single lapse from virtue.” The United States was at a point of crisis, and Hayes, unfortunately, had failed:

We have reached a stage in the history of the country when, owing to the great strides made in population and industry, we are threatened with a distinct change in the form and spirit of the Government…. The movement can only be arrested by a President of indomitable energy and strength of will, who relies on and is supported by an aroused public opinion. We shall probably see more than one offer himself for the task and lose heart after putting his hand to the plough; but the right man will at last appear, and when he does people will be surprised by the ease with which he will do the work.

Americans today may not be able to distinguish Rutherford B. Hayes from John Tyler any more than future generations, as the Times article suggested, will know the first thing about Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter. Even so, the Hayes era is not nearly as distant as we might think. The themes and rhythms of those times are still present in our own—buried, perhaps, but there. With Elvis Presley, we’ve forgotten to remember to forget.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: The first article we ever published about the Internet

This Is the First Article We Ever Published About the Internet

Network Traffic

A visualization of incoming traffic on a network run by the National Science Foundation, for the month of September 1991. Image by Donna Cox and Robert Patterson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, from data collected by the Merit Network. (Wikimedia Commons)

President Obama’s brief statement last week in support of net neutrality may or may not be enough to sway the Federal Communications Commission, expected to “hand down—spooky phrase—”new rules early in the New Year.“ The Internet has been one of the greatest gifts our economy—and our society—has ever known,” the president said, before “respectfully” asking the FCC “to preserve this technology’s promise for today and future generations to come.”

The Nation has been watching how new technologies interact with politics for almost 150 years. In September of 1866, the editors imagined a future thoroughly altered by the telegraph:

Where it is all going to end, and what kind of life the “merchant of the future” will lead, nobody knows, or pretends to know. From present appearances it would seem as if the commerce of the world would pass into the hands of a few great houses; that all the small dealers would be converted into clerks on salaries, and everything be done by a few vast combinations conceived by half-a-dozen heads, the details being worked out by subordinates, possessing only a limited responsibility, and, therefore, suffering little from wear and tear.

Sounds about right.

While not exactly at the vanguard of the technological revolution of the second half of the twentieth century—the political implications of computers largely (though not entirely) evaded our attention—The Nation’s very first article about the Internet is a fascinating read. It is in some places hopelessly (and hilariously) dated, but in others quite timeless.

Published in our issue dated July 12, 1993, “The Whole World Is Talking” was written by Kevin Cooke and Dan Lehrer, graduate journalism students at the University of California, Berkeley. (The author note at the bottom of the piece said “they claim they are not computer weenies,” and then printed their e-mail addresses. Tim Ziegler, now editor of Austin Post, also contributed.)

It began with a set piece about a man named Wam Kat, who “files daily reports on life in Zagreb, Croatia.” The catch?

Kat’s bulletins, which he calls “Zagreb Diary,” don’t appear in Yugoslav papers or on television. They exist in cyberspace. Kat types them on his own computer in Zagreb and sends them by modem to an electronic bulletin board in Germany. From there, his stories are relayed to computers around the world via the global mega-information stream called the Internet.

So the guy had a blog.

Cooke and Lehrer’s article is full of delicious little items like that: barely more than twenty years old, it already feels like an artifact from another era, one as inaccessible to us now as the early days of the telegraph. Even so, as with the 1866 article, it is fun (and genuinely informative) to read now not because of its irrelevance to the current debate about information and society, but because of its surprising relevance.

“The Net is changing more than just the flow of information,” Cooke and Lehrer wrote. “It’s changing the way we relate to one another. The advent of global networking is fragmenting and re-sorting society into what one author calls ‘virtual communities.’ Instead of being bound by location, groups of people can now meet in cyberspace, the noncorporeal world, existing between two linked computers. There they can look for colleagues, friends, romance or sex.”

There are some passages that, through no fault of the writers, come off a little goofy today:

While Internet experts deride the term “information superhighway” as an empty soundbite, the concept works as an analogy to understand how the Internet functions. Think of its as a massive road system, complete with freeways, feeders and local routes. At every intersection sits a computer, which has to be passed through to get to the next computer until you’ve reached your destination. Any computer on the Internet system can connect with any other computer through the road system. And if the route to your destination is closed, you will automatically take a detour to get there.

The difference between the Internet and the Interstate is that you can go to Finland as quickly as you can go down the block. Once there, you can remotely manipulate the computer to do anything your own can do. You can retrieve a file from it in the blink of an eye.

And the milkman came around three times a week.

* * *

But Cooke and Lehrer also noted that potential that the Internet could be used for activism, organizing and political discussion unavailable in the mainstream press. “You’re not going to find anything to the left of the Democratic Party on TV or in newspapers,” they quoted one Harel Barzilai, a Cornell graduate student, saying. “And for those of us who have access to the Internet, it’s free to use it and post information. This is our chance to be heard.” The authors also quoted the writer Howard Rheingold saying that “the direct access to information the Internet provides is ‘inherently subversive.’”

The article then launches into a discussion about the privatization and profitization of the early Internet, which, in some ways, anticipates the one going on today. “Internet activists,” Cooke and Lehrer wrote, “want to make sure that this power stays with individuals.”

The primary threat was then, as it is today, plans to charge different prices for access to different content—precisely the kind of arrangement President Obama said last week must not be allowed. In 1993, Cooke and Lehrer saw that danger remarkably clearly:

By giving the private sector unregulated and monopolistic control over the Net’s electronic connections, the government would in effect allow megacorporations like AT&T and Time Warner, who own the cable lines and manage what flows through them, to call the shots in the future. They could determine how much anyone, from a single individual to a university, will have to pay for access. Some phone companies, for example, are already discussing charging users either by the amount of time they log on to the Internet or by the amount of data they send over it—despite the fact that their network operating costs are fixed no matter how many people us it or how much data flows through it. Changing the funding structure means the eventual extinction of the small, mom-and-pop computer networks, which could find themselves victims of predictable market forces. And that means that isolated users and cash-strapped colleges could be cut off from their virtual communities.

Some of the details of the problem, of course, have changed in ways we don’t have time or space to go into. But the principle at stake, and the threats to it, remain astonishingly identical to those Cooke and Lehrer wrote about in 1993:

In a worst-case scenario, Rheingold says, corporations would not only monitor what’s on the Internet, they would monitor you. If, as some predict, the information superhighway becomes primarily a conduit for watching movies, banking at home and shopping, the same computers that we use to lessen the burden of our daily errands could also be used by the corporations that provide those services to destroy our personal privacy. The Net could be used by marketing wizards—the same ones who flood us with annoying junk mail—to keep tabs on us all in Orwellian fashion, automatically recording our interests and habits.

Hackers have already developed a few defenses, which could be the seeds for preserving the right to free communication. Free software to encode all electronic transmissions is now widely available, with codes that even the fastest super-computers would have a tough-time cracking. This means that nobody but the person you send something to—whether an e-mail note or a piece of software—can read it.

The conclusion to the article, twenty-one years later, is fairly chilling:

Internet activists are also not happy with the Clinton Administration’s effort to impose a standard encoding scheme for data, whether e-mail or a movie, that only the government can break. “The machinery of oppression has weak spots,” Rheingold says, noting the spread of encryption techniques that even the National Security Agency may not be able to crack. “But the powers that be in the N.S.A. have convinced Clinton that they have to closet he doors before all the cows get out.”

Whether it’s the government or private corporations, what everyone wants is control of a new form of communication, one that currently cannot be controlled. Given the stakes and the power of the interests now seeking to shape and profit from this new technology, the end result may not be a happy one for the average citizen-user. “The key questions of access, pricing, censorship and redress of grievances will be answered in practice, in law, in executive order or legislative action, over the next five years,” Rheingold writes, “and will thus determine the political and economic structure of the Net for decades to come.”

But for the time being, the activities of people like Wam Kat seem to prove an old hacker adage: “All information wants to be free.”

* * *

I e-mailed both Cooke and Lehrer, asking them to reread the 1993 article send me their reflections. Cooke wrote back first:

In the twenty-one years since this article was published, the Internet has become both more magical and more invasive than I expected. I have worked all that time as an Internet technologist for media companies, so I should probably not be as awed by the Internet as I am. I think the Internet ranks as one of the most important human-created things. Information does want to be free, as we continue to learn from people like Edward Snowden. Governments tremble before its power, and do whatever they can to control the cord, if they can’t cut it (see the Great Firewall of China for a very crazy example of this tendency.)

The uses we find for these technologies are beyond any one person’s comprehension, and were of course well beyond my imagination, when I pitched the idea for the article to Victor Navasky in a dark bar near the UC-Berkeley campus in the Spring of 1993. For most users, the Internet and smartphones are indistinguishable from magic. Count me among that number.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Dan Lehrer had this to say:

I remember that at the time, the “information superhighway” (and thank goodness that term has retired) was a hot topic in newspapers, but it was still a vague concept to most people. This story was really one of the first to explain to non-computer-friendly people what the Internet actually was and what it did.

A couple of things jumped out at me when rereading the article that Kevin, Tim and I wrote in the Pleistocene. The biggest is that we were even called upon to explain what the Internet was in the first place. We now take the Internet for granted—we expect to be able to scroll through epic cat fail videos, make free overseas video calls, and get free shipping. The Internet is seamlessly integrated into our daily lives. That’s why it should be a public utility, right? But except for college students and early adopters who joined private virtual communities like Marin County’s the WELL (which stood for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) the promise of the Internet bordered on science fiction at that time. Indeed, in the article, we briefly mention that the Internet may become “primarily a conduit for watching movies, banking at home and shopping” but downplayed this aspect of the piece—it was kind of like a flying car.

The other major thing about the story is that the issues are the same now—completely, exactly the same—as they were back when Mosaic was the best browser around (and it was slow and crashed a lot). Marketing companies using browsing habits to invade privacy? Monopolistic megacorporations limiting access to competitors? Encryption as a way of protecting privacy? Check, check and check. The forms of communication that we use on the Internet have changed—newsgroups to Facebook—but the implications of what we do online and how we do it remain.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: Obama tells the FCC to ‘implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.’

Syndicate content